Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Maleficent" Isn't Quite so Magnificent

Maleficent, Disney’s latest in a seemingly never-ending series of big-budget live-action fantasy films, appears to be a dark film right from the get-go. Thanks to what seems to be a Disney tradition of creating misleading trailers, it hides the film’s relatively-light mood and instead portrays an extremely dark film.

Maleficent is the perspective-flipped live-action remake of Sleeping Beauty, and if it’s one thing that die-hard fans of original films hate more than sequels, it’s remakes. Especially remakes that tell the story from a different point of view. Why? Quite often, discrepancies appear between the two movies. These two can’t avoid that fatal flaw.

As a stand-alone movie, Maleficent is a decent film. As a perspective-flipped remake, that depends on how protective you are of the original material. Disney changes the names of characters, their alignments, and what role they play in the film. Major characters get relegated to minor roles too (joy!). Of course, all of this is in comparison to the original Sleeping Beauty. The creators quickly cover for this by deeming Sleeping Beauty as the “tale” and Maleficent the “truth”. Take it however you’d like.

Maleficent is the debut film for director Robert Stromberg, who previously won 2 Academy Awards in the fields of Production Design and Art Directon (the same category). Writing the script is Linda Wollverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland). Unfortunately, this movie is more akin to the most recent of that trio – a movie that focuses more on visuals and less on story.
The movie begins by introducing Maleficent and her world as a child and we’re exposed to the colourful, contrasting world of the Moors. Also introduced is Stefan (a young boy at this point). The two grow up, together and apart, in a few minutes and with somewhat out-of-place narration to boot. Nothing’s quite too clear during this time and it feels a bit rushed, thanks to the short 97 minute runtime.

The movie spends way too much time dilly-dallying around with epic large-scale fights that look amazing but aren’t completely necessary. The costume design for the characters is done very well and the Moors’ citizens look great as well. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the majority of the environmental CGI, which occasionally appeals, but otherwise, it disappoints. The fog is unrealistic and there’s one scene with a crumbling fence that is completely out of place and is downright distracting.

Luckily, the movie is saved by the titular character herself, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and by Aurora (Elle Fanning). As expected, these two interact quite a bit (in no small part due to the curse). Jolie does an elegant job with her character and her dry wit injects some needed humour into the film.

Other characters – Diaval (Sam Riley) and the three fairies, get their fair share of screen time but sorely lack much character development. Stefan (Sharlto Copley) closely resembles Macbeth, whether or not he is actually based upon him is another story, although I wouldn’t be too surprised if he was, given Wollverton’s adaptation of Hamlet for The Lion King.  

As Maleficent marks the second Disney movie in the last few months to feature two female leads, the other being Frozen, parallels can be easily drawn between the two films. They’re easy to compare and some parts seem to derive from the same concept. Had the animated hit been, well, not so much of a hit, Maleficent could’ve had a larger impact. The last few years have made it obvious that Disney wants to change its society-created image of creating weak female leads, although the arguments for that often neglect several characters. Maleficent doesn’t stray from that track and instead highlights themes of assault and recovery. Others, with Jolie confirming this, mentioned that one of the movie’s scenes is essentially a metaphor for rape.

The soundtrack doesn’t stand out as magnificent, but it also isn’t bad in that regard. James Newton Howard’s focus on choirs and toned vocals sets Maleficent’s soundtrack apart from most other big-budget films. The leitmotif is formed and reoccurs at the right times, so well done for that. However, Lana Del Rey’s dark recondition of Once Upon a Dream is the highlight of the film’s soundtrack, being the only lyrical piece. It’s elegantly haunting and plays during the credits sequence. If you haven’t heard it online, it’s worth staying for.

While the movie has its heartwarming and cute moments, which are almost socially mandated thanks to the Disney label, the film doesn’t spend enough time on dialogue, the characters, and their interactions with each other. Family, and younger, audiences can watch films longer than 97 minutes. A longer runtime and a more in-tune and character-driven script would’ve executed to the entirety of Maleficent’s potential, but unfortunately that didn’t materialize.

Maleficent is a movie with great themes, characters, and potential, but unfortunately is bogged down by action scenes that are akin of generic summer blockbusters. 

Maleficent: B-
Opening Date: 30 May 2014
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Production: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley
Directors: Robert Stromberg, John Lee Hancock (re-shoots)
Writers: Linda Woolverton
Producer: Joe Roth
Executive Producers: Sarah Bradshaw, Don Hahn, Angelina Jolie, Stephen Jones, Palak Patel, Matt Smith
Production Designer: Dylan Cole, Gary Freeman
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson
Music: James Newton Howard
Based on: La Belle au bois dormant, Charles Perrault; Little Briar Rose, Jacob and Wilheim Grimm; Sleeping Beauty, Erdman Penner et al.
Rated PG, 97 Minutes